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The reality of receiving financial aid

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MARCH 24, 2023

“You have been added to the financial aid advising queue. Your wait time is now 36 minutes.” 

I am not a foreigner to this text message, especially since I not only receive financial aid, but also formerly worked as a financial aid peer advisor at UC Berkeley’s Financial Aid and Scholarships Office. I believe I speak for all of us when I say that on a multitude of occasions, a visit to the financial aid office isn’t one we entirely look forward to. 

As a financial aid advisor, I often found myself taking my job more seriously than I needed to. My job was to sit at the front desk and simply direct students to the specific department they needed to be in contact with. The most commonly asked for department was, of course, the one for financial aid. 

Every day on the job was a new learning experience. I constantly encountered heartbreaking stories from students pleading to me for financial assistance. While I listened to their genuine explanations, I had two very different thoughts going through my mind. One was how badly I felt for them in thinking about how many times they’ve probably had to repeat this story, and the second was how much I wished I had the power to give them the help they needed. But, this isn’t always the case when it comes to money. 

All I could do was add them to the 45 minute line and hope that they were able to get the assistance they needed. They walked into the office with so much hope, only for a majority to then walk out with glum faces and disappointment. 

Oftentimes, the visit to the office and its difficulty is only exacerbated by the lack of empathy from most financial aid officers. I can confidently say that oftentimes the demographic of financial aid officers does not correlate with the demographic of students who receive financial aid help. In the numerous times I’ve paid a visit to our financial aid office, I was paired with a white advisor as opposed to a POC staff member. However, it wasn’t until I actually began working for the department that I realized the leading demographic for higher-ups was predominantly white. This can completely change the outcome for students who are dealing with financial issues, and their attitudes.

When talking to my fellow peers about their experiences with the financial aid office, we often agreed on the fact that white financial aid officers were less likely to be understanding and helpful in regards to our financial situations. We found that speaking to a fellow POC staff member not only makes us feel more comfortable in terms of freely discussing our issues, but also it is more likely for them to empathize with us and go above and beyond to find us further help. 

Having to deal with the fact that you simply cannot afford to go to school is tough, but dealing with advisors who have no empathy towards your situation further makes the experience unbearable. Not only do a majority of advisors lack understanding in these difficult situations, but when they feel like it goes beyond their paid abilities to find you help, they often send you down an endless cycle of people who only refer you to the next department. 

Running into financial difficulties as a college student is not a rare occurrence for many low-income POC students. Speaking personally, asking my parents for money was simply not an option as a first-generation student — they had enough on their plates without the burden of paying for my education. Not only did I refuse to burden my parents with my educational expenses, but I feared that once I told them how much college really costs, they would put themselves in immense debt just to find a way to cover it. So, I took it upon myself to independently handle all financial responsibilities for college. 

It wasn’t until I reached out to a Latine professor at UC Berkeley that I encountered any luck when finding financial aid assistance. One of the most caring and genuine professors on campus, Dr. Pablo Gonzalez, was able to connect me with a fellow Latine financial aid director who so selflessly dedicated herself to helping me through my financial situation. 

I was lucky enough to have mentors who were able to relieve me from any financial barriers for college, but not all students are as fortunate as I was. As much as I continually spread the word of mentors’ abilities to help fellow POC students, these efforts only scratch the surface of the plethora of students at UC Berkeley who also desperately need guidance.

It is truly so disheartening to see that a system utilized widely by students at UC Berkeley is as inaccessible and insensitive as it is. Financial capability is a factor so widely factored into students’ decisions for not only engaging in educational opportunities on campus, but making the overall decision of whether or not college is a realistic path for them. 

Our financial aid system needs a restructuring so that it is able to cater to the needs of our diverse student body on campus. A safe and welcoming environment when dealing with issues as paramount as financial aid shouldn’t be a privilege, but a standard for financial institutions everywhere.

Keylin Vasquez writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

MARCH 24, 2023